I wrote in 2007 about the National Day of Prayer, a ridiculous ceremony created by Congress in the 1950s to urge all Americans to pray. That obviously unconstitutional objective would be bad enough, but what makes it even worse is that official National Day of Prayer events, held in city halls and government offices across the nation, are overrun by evangelical religious-right groups who claim the day as their own and don't allow members of the "wrong" religions to participate.
Well, I'm thrilled to say that freethinkers and secularists have won a tremendous victory against this blatantly illegal government-sponsored religious exercise. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has won summary judgment in a district court over their lawsuit, filed in October 2008, which seeks to bar the federal government from recognizing the National Day of Prayer.
Judge Barbara Crabb wrote a 66-page decision that lays out the history of the National Day of Prayer, exhaustively considers the precedents, and makes a clear, thorough and compelling argument for why this event is a complete violation of the constraints placed on the government by the First Amendment. The ruling is available online, and I'll quote a few of the choicer parts:
However, recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic. [p.4-5]
[R]eligious expression by the government that is inspirational and comforting to a believer may seem exclusionary or even threatening to someone who does not share those beliefs. This is not simply a matter of being "too sensitive" or wanting to suppress the religious expression of others. Rather, as explained in a recent book by the Provost of Princeton University and the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law, it is a consequence of the unique danger that religious conduct by the government poses for creating "in" groups and "out" groups.... [p.19]
If the government were interested only in acknowledging the role of religion in America, it could have designated a
"National Day of Religious Freedom" rather than promote a particular religious practice. [p.34]
The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy. [p.64]
The opinion also takes a few well-deserved swipes at the excuses that some judges have devised to sneak state-sponsored religion in through the back door:
Establishment clause values would be significantly eroded if the government could promote any longstanding religious practice of the majority under the guise of "acknowledgment." [p.33]
One judge [that would be Judge Reinhardt, who ruled for Michael Newdow in the Pledge case —Ebonmuse] observed recently that ceremonial deism is a "hazily defined" concept and suggested that it "represents mainly the judiciary's less than courageous response" to certain longstanding religious practices. [p.44]
Crabb's decision explained something I didn't know - that the National Day of Prayer was proposed by conservative congressmen (including Absalom Robertson, Pat Robertson's father) to an evangelistic revival held in Washington, D.C. by Billy Graham which called upon the government to be more Christian. She quotes from Graham's speech to show how openly partisan and sectarian his intent was:
We have dropped our pilot, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are sailing blindly on without divine chart or compass, hoping somehow to find our desired haven. We have certain leaders who are rank materialists; they do not recognize God nor care for Him [sic]... Ladies and gentlemen, I warn you, if this state of affairs continues, the end of the course is national shipwreck and ruin. [p.6]
Graham, of course, is a private citizen and is welcome to hold the opinion that our leaders should be Jesus believers or engage in prayer - but it is not the role of the government itself to back him up. It is not the role of the government to tell people to "recognize" or "care for" one particular set of god-beliefs, nor is it any of the government's business to tell us how, when, or whether to pray. Thomas Jefferson explained why when he wisely refused to issue religious proclamations as President:
I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it... every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
This is just the first step, of course; this ruling is all but certain to go to an appeals court. Even if it survives the first round of appeals, it's very likely to wind up before the Supreme Court, and there's no telling how they'll rule. Nevertheless, this is a major victory, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation deserves tremendous credit for taking on this case and fighting it out in court. If you're an atheist and you're not an FFRF member, why on earth aren't you?